News And Politics

Illegal, undocumented or unauthorized?

May 3, 2012, 10:59 a.m.

The U.S.-Mexican border. Many immigrants come from Mexico without proper documentation, although the net migration flow from Mexico to the U.S. has come to a standstill in recent years. (Credit: Derrick Mealiffe/Flickr Creative Commons)


The 2010 census found that more than half of Los Angeles County's foreign-born population are not U.S. citizens.

By the numbers: Out of more 3.4 million immigrants, more than 1.9 million are undocumented.

Or what's the term? Are they really undocumented? Or are they illegal? And if they are illegal, are they illegal aliens? Or should we throw all those terms out in favor of a possibly more neutral "unauthorized" label?

KPCC's Leslie Berestein Rojas has tackled this terminology in Multi-American, and it's an issue that's particularly relevant to southside Angelenos.

Census data from 2000 found that L.A. City Council District 9 had a population of more than 236,000; out of those folks, more than 92,000 weren't citizens. (That's 40 percent.)

The City Planner's website didn't have information on how many of CD9's citizens were in the country illegally in 2010, but we can reasonably assume that number has grown at least moderately over 10 years, especially given that Los Angeles' population grew 3.1 percent between censuses. The City Planner reports that in 2009, CD9 alone was home to approximately 257,900 people.

It should be noted that a recent study found that net migration from Mexico to the U.S. has come to a standstill.

What's in a name?
So what's the best term for those people who live in the U.S. without permission? According to the Associated Press, that's an acceptable variant – "living in the country without permission." But their preferred term is "illegal immigrant."

"Undocumented might imply that illegal immigration is simply a matter of not having one's papers in order," said AP Stylebook co-editor Dave Minthorn to the Maynard Institute. "It may be used to minimize what could be a violation of the law – evading controls at a border or living in a country without legal permission."

But as a "blanket synonym for illegal immigrant," said Minthorn, undocumented is "usually imprecise or inaccurate."

The AP Stylebook entry for illegal immigrant added that "unless quoting someone, AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented."

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), however, doesn't agree. In its resource guide for journalists, it has the following to say about several terms:

Illegal(s): Avoid. Alternative terms are "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker." ... Many Latinos decry this term because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering, residing in the U.S. without documents.

Illegal alien: Avoid. ... Many find the term offensive and dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States ... demeans an individual by describing them as an alien.

Illegal immigrant: While many national news outlets use the term "illegal immigrant," this handbook calls for the discussion and re-evaluation of its use. ... Some Latinos say such terms as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end.

As it makes clear, NAHJ's preferred term is "undocumented" because it "points out that [immigrants] are undocumented, but does not dehumanize them in the manner that such terms as aliens and illegals do."

Colorlines.com echoed that with a 2010 campaign called "Drop the I-Word," and suggested its preferred terms: immigrant, undocumented immigrant, immigrant without papers, immigrants entering without inspection, immigrant seeking status, unauthorized immigrant and citizen child of undocumented immigrants.

But according to UCLA Chicano studies professor Otto Santa Ana, both "illegal" and "undocumented" are "partisan" – and so should be "struck from journalism."

"When you say 'illegal immigrant, you are labeling the individual as inherently bad," Santa Ana told KPCC's Rojas in Multi-American. "You do not call a pedestrian who jaywalks an illegal pedestrian. The kid who plays hooky is not an illegal student.

"On the other hand, to call someone ‘undocumented’ softpedals the serious issue of crossing the border without documents," he continued. "It is a euphemism … It is perfectly appropriate for partisans to take on a position or another, but not for the media to characterize immigrants as illegal or undocumented.”

Instead, he said, "unauthorized" is the most objective terms. Rojas says that's the one that tends to be used often by academics and researchers.

So there's three camps, as it were – illegal, undocumented and now unauthorized. Which do you prefer? Take our poll and let us know.


Photo by Derrick Mealiffe via Flickr Creative Commons.

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